3oth Sunday of the Year – October 24, 1971 – CNR
Today’s Gospel is a hard saying, difficult to comprehend, difficult to accept. It is not primarily told as a lesson in humility; it is much more fundamental than that: it is a lesson on the nature of the Gospel, on the nature of Christianity.
Jesus does not suggest that the Pharisee was a hypocrite or a liar, that it was not true that he was not like the rest of men or that he fasted and paid tithes. And yet Jesus says that it was not he, but the poor sinner in the back of the temple who went home justified, the poor man whose only prayer was a plea for mercy.
What apparently is at issue in the contrasting attitudes of the two men is the ability to accept the Gospel for what it is, God’s free offer of his communion to man. The one thing the Pharisee’s attitude makes impossible is that he accept God’s offer as free grace; he has been too busy about securing a proper relation with God by his own effort. He seems to have little sense of his own sinfulness, of his inability to enter into a relation with God that differs from the ones he has with his fellow men. Favor, grace, free and unmerited kindness seem to lie outside his horizon. He does not have room for the God who made himself known in the words and deeds of Jesus.
It is the publican, conscious of his unworthiness, of his need for free mercy (he prays for it, he neither claims it nor expects it), who stands right before God. For he knows in the weakness of his heart of his need for God’s power; he is willing to permit God to be the God of incomprehensible grace. It is not suggested that he was the better man before his prayer; but it is clearly stated that only he of the two could have any sense of the God who came not to call the just but sinners.
It remains a lesson for us. Today’s parable is not an isolated one: it repeats what is the frequent theme of Jesus’ words and deeds. We are always eager to heap up the good works that will assure us of a good standing in God’s sight, when what is needed is the willingness to let God set the standards for our relation with him, to permit him to be generous towards us, so that our effort at doing the good is not self-seeking ambition, but an expression of the gratitude we feel for having been loved beyond merit If we do not understand this, we do not understand grace; and if we do not understand grace, we have missed the point of the Gospel, of what God is like, and of what therefore we are to be like.
30th Sunday of the Year—October 27, 1974—C.N.R.
There are many passages in the Gospels from which we today appear to be so far separated that a long and careful inquiry alone can unveil their sense to us. The one we have just heard is not one of them. Across twenty centuries of history, across how many cultural shifts, how much religious development, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector disconcerts as much today as it did when it was first uttered. Rarely does the Gospel speak so clearly and so immediately.
That is so, at least, if we do not misinterpret the figure of the Pharisee. Jesus does not say that this man was a hypocrite or that he exaggerated his good works. His words were true, and yet his prayer was not honest. That Jesus did not exaggerate in the prayer he put upon the man’s lips is evident from an actual prayer of a similar man, which the scholars have discovered:
I thank you, 0 Lord, my God, that you have given me my lot with those who sit in the seat of learning, and not with those who sit at the street-corners; for I am early to work, and they are early to work; but I am early to work on the words of the Law, and they are early to work on things of no importance. I tire myself, and they tire themselves; but I tire myself and profit thereby, while they tire themselves to no profit. I run and they run; but I run towards the life of the Age to Come, and they run towards the pit of destruction. (Jeremias, Parables, 142)
And if that prayer seems still too distant from you, consider more contemporary variations: “I thank you, Lord, that I am a priest, and that I may spend my days in your service, doing your work and not men’s.” Or: “I thank you, Lord, that I am a religious, dedicated to a life totally given to you, unlike those who must divide themselves among many different cares.” Or: “I thank you, Lord, that I am a college student, with all the opportunities that opens to me, now and later, with all the advantages it gives me over the uneducated.” Or:”I thank you, Lord, that I am a Catholic. I go to Mass weekly or daily. I opposed the war in Vietnam. I boycott grapes and iceberg lettuce. I do not seek a comfortable Christianity.”
All of those words can be true, too, and they all speak also of things for which we should be grateful–as did the Pharisee’s prayer. But in all of such prayers, as also in his prayer, we find that our eyes are not so fixed on God that we do not notice out of the corner of our eyes those others who are not so favored. “I thank you, God,” the Pharisee prayed, “that I am not like the rest of men–grasping, crooked, adulterous–or even like this tax-collector.” There is something of that in us all; it is important for us that there be our own equivalents of the tax-collector, for the sake of our own sense of ourselves, a point of comparison to give us grounds for our thanksgiving.
And what is the tax-collector doing all this while? He is way in the back of the temple, eyes down, beating his breast in desperation. There is nothing to suggest that he was overdoing it. He occupied a post that made him hated and shunned by his own people; it was taken for granted that he could not get the job or keep it without dishonesty and fraud. He was the contemporary equivalent of our bookies, or pimps, or bribers, or masters of the art of the kickback. He had every reason to pray as he prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”
The point, of course, is that he did pray, and that this was his prayer. It is radically honest in a way in which the Pharisee’s prayer never is. For it does not go to God via others; it is the cry of a heart alone and naked before its God. And it addresses this God at the point at which every heart must always meet him, if it is honest: not building on the past, not even on a past in which God has been present, not building on anything but a mercy of which it knows itself unworthy. “Have mercy on me, the sinner:” receive me, Lord; do not cast me off; do not forget me; begin again your work of creation out of my nothingness; accept me; free me; make me live.” There are a thousand variations on that cry for mercy, and we have either already cried them or will, if we are honest, cry them some day. And we have already known or some day will know, that in making that prayer, all our proud supports disappear and if there are others around us, they are known to be our brothers and sisters in our need and in our cry.
This parable is not easily accepted, because that prayer is not easily prayed. But it is the only way in which we can go home from this church today “justified,” having received God’s favor. That is the tremendous gift which this service holds open to us, not as a guaranteed blessing, but as light that can only dawn upon eyes that know their own blindness, mercy upon a heart that admits its own sin, life for a body that cries out its own death. May such blessing be ours today.
30th Week of the Year – October 23, 1977 – CNR
St. Luke presents us with a parable of Jesus addressed, Luke says, “to those who believed in their own self-righteousness while despising everyone else.” That introduction suggests a universalizing purpose : we will be getting a description of “ideal types,” as the sociologists call them, of religious people. But one suspects that there’s more to the parable than that.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were not fakers. They were serious about their religion, and it is probable that the Gospels have painted their portraits too darkly. They prized the law and traditional religious practices as divinely willed and sanctioned ways of serving God, and in this Jesus does not say they were wrong. And when we look at the Pharisee in our parable, we don’t find any indication that he was dishonest in his prayer. And yet it was not he who went down from the temple justified.
That blessing fell upon the man who was unworthy of it and knew he was unworthy. He would not even raise his head to look toward his God; he could only stand back in the shadows, and ask for the only thing he could stake the slightest hope on–the mercy of his God.
The portraits are nicely drawn, and we recognize types we know from other Gospel-passages. In the parable of the prodigal son, they are older and younger son; in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, they are the all-day laborers and the five-o’clock hands; they are the accusers and the poor woman they would have had stoned for adultery.
This last pair, of course, are not described in a parable, but in an actual scene; and that helps us recognize in this parable something more than just universal types. In the contrast between Pharisee and tax collector resides the whole drama of the ministry of Jesus and of its outcome. The parable’s point is that to the Pharisees’ mind-set, the message of Jesus is fundamentally unintelligible and he must be discredited in their sight. Jesus did not speak of fasting and tithes, of temple and worship, and he did not separate people into the religious and the irreligious. His message could not be fitted within their narrow limits and they would not admit that their vision did not exhaust the possibilities, both human and divine. In the end they had to do away with him and his challenge.
Jesus found his audience among the despised, or perhaps we should say that he created it there. There is no reason to think that at first they were particularly interested or had much hope in his message. More probably, they shared their “cultured despisers” view of themselves. But in Jesus they found one who went out to them, because, having nothing to offer or claim, they had nothing to cling to as a private resource, too precious to surrender to the God he spoke of. They could not boast their practices and habits, their achievements and their ambitions, their public deeds or their private selves. And yet, Jesus said, God’s Reign was breaking in upon their poverty, not as a word of judgment but of forgiveness, not of estrangement but of welcome, so that while they might stand way back in the Temple with head bowed, in Jesus they were invited to raise their eyes to see a different God and, in his love, the possibility of a new self.
The point of the parable, then, is that the real question is not whether one walks down from the Temple justified, but whether one walks away justified after encountering Jesus. And in that respect, the contrast between Pharisee and tax collector describes the issue involved in any encounter with Jesus. We are surely too self-conscious today to use the Pharisee’s words, but is there not often something of his mind and heart in each of us?–in the way we judge others, in the very need we feel to judge others, in the principles of our friendships and associations, in our choice of “ministries” and “life-styles”, in the biases of our tolerances and suspicions? The word “Pharisee” meant separated”, and God knows, we do enough separating.
We come now into this assembly–not so much into a physical building as into a community – a community in which our easy separations are supposed to be overcome in the fellowship of our common need of mercy and in our common experience of the gracious presence of the same forgiving Lord. Will we walk away from this community “justified” or not? That is a question to be decided first in our hearts, where each of us individually determines how we come to meet Christ, but then also in what we do when we walk away, in the words we say and the deeds we do, and then and there the issue will be resolved as the question whether our lives, singly and together, succeed in realizing here among ourselves some reflection of the same boundless love of which we have, all of us, the sane need and, thanks be to God, the same experience.
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 24, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
As Jesus leads his disciples on the way to Jerusalem, where he will fulfill his mission to Israel, he gives them various instructions about what it means to follow after him, instructions which St. Luke in his Gospel transmits as guidance also for the Church of disciples. Last week we heard a first instruction about prayer, with the example of the persistent widow who finally wore the unjust judge down so that he helped her just to get rid of her: an unflattering image, but one that serves as the basis of an a fortiori argument: If even an unjust judge will act justly, how much more your will God do so toward his own children.
Today we have heard a second instruction about prayer. This one contrasts two men in the temple, the Pharisee whose prayer begins with thanksgiving, but after that is a series of me-statements, that show how he differs from others, in particular from that tax collector he notices is there with him. Jesus doesn’t say that this Pharisee is telling untruths–it could very well be that every thing he says is true. But there’s something smarmy about the man, isn’t there? He’s self-satisfied, can’t imagine that he doesn’t deserve to be there; he’s content with what he is (with where’s he’s at, as it might be said today): “I’m OK, God, unlike that other guy back there.”
That other guy, whose occupation makes him despised among his own people because of the constant contact with the hated Romans it entails, will not even look up, but can only murmur: “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” And he too may be, surely is, telling the truth about himself, knows the truth about himself, and is speaking it out loud. And he’s the one who goes away justified rather than the other one, because, as one scholar nicely puts it: “he has done the one thing that God requires of those who seek access to him: he has faced the truth about himself and cast himself on God’s compassion.”
I once had to counsel a young woman who had committed a sin for which she had a great deal of difficulty believing she could be forgiven. Despite her having confessed her sin and having been absolved, and despite my urging, she couldn’t bring herself to go to communion because she didn’t deserve it, she said. She was the one who did the contrasting, comparing herself to the pious people in church who she seemed to think had a right to be there, while she didn’t. This text makes me think of her, and to desire to say to you all: If anyone of you now finds yourself, or should in the future find yourself, so sunk in a sense of unworthiness, please think of that tax collector in the back of the temple, head down, and murmuring his “Have mercy on me, a sinner,” and recall that Jesus says that it is he who is found righteous, right, in God’s sight.
This text should be not only a caution against any temptations to take our own virtue for granted, but a wonderful comfort should the burden of guilt ever become too heavy to bear. Keep in mind the kind of God Jesus has taught us to believe in, and to pray to.
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 25, 2010 – St. John’s
For the second Sunday in a row, the Gospel reading offers us a lesson about prayer. Last week we received the assurance that if the unjust judge finally hears the plea of the widow simply to stop her from pestering im, how much more may we expect our good God to respond in good time to our prayers. That lesson was drawn by way of contrast. Today another contrast is offered to us, this time not between a man and God but between two men who both go up to the Temple to pray. This time it’s not so much the need for persistence in praying that Jesus urges as the attitude that we ought to bring to our praying.
Two men went up to the Temple to pray, Jesus tells us in today’s parable, but only one of them returned right with God. The Pharisee’s prayer was of thanksgiving, and that’s perfectly appropriate, and we don’t have any reason to doubt that he was correct in what he said: that he avoided the sins he mentions or that he performed the works of religion. But there’s something wrong about his praying, isn’t there? St. Augustine found two things wrong with it. First, that the man didn’t appear to think he needed anything more: you’ll notice that he didn’t ask for anything, as if he was content with what he had and was. Second, that the Pharisee’s mind wasn’t entirely raised toward, focused on, God. He was looking around himself in order to compare himself with others, and not just with the greedy, the dishonest, the adulterous, but also with that specific tax-collector back there, that guy whose regular contact with Gentiles by itself made him unholy, that guy back there, the one bent over, as he should be. “Convinced of his own righteousness,” St. Luke says, he is one of those who “despise everyone else.” What an awful indictment–that one’s praying should be a moment of pride, an occasion of sin!
And there the tax-collector is, indeed bent over, not daring to look up to God. Honest about himself, aware of his need, he prays very simply: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner!” He thought he was far off, Augustine said, but God was near him; he wouldn’t look up toward God, but God was looking toward him. He utters the simplest of prayers, one spoken from the heart. Perhaps it inspired the Jesus Prayer, also known as the “Prayer of the Heart,” that is so strong in the spirituality of Eastern Orthodox Christianity: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s often said repetitively, like the Hail Mary of our Rosary. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Two attitudes of prayer, of praying, then. Why is one’s attitude important? Because it’s a basic matter of honesty, of sincerity, in our praying. Praying is raising our minds and hearts to God, it is a kind of conversation with God. What is more important than honesty in our relationships? In fact, if there is something about which we can’t be honest with a friend, or a spouse, it’s a fairly good sign that there’s something wrong with a relationship. So what does our praying reveal about our relationship with God, and about how we view it? We could ask some basic questions: What is our image of the God to whom we are praying? Are we praying to an angry God? To a General Patton? To a Judge? To a Father? To a Mother? What is the basic attitude that leads us to pray? Simple obedience–we’ve been told to pray? Fear? Need? (What kinds of need?) Repentance? Gratitude? Is there anything spontaneous about our praying? Or is it all rote-praying and role-playing? Do we ever put down the prayer-book and simply speak to God, heart to heart? Is our praying ever joyful? When do we pray? How often? Where? Do we offer God anything more than the scraps of our day? (Karl Rahner)
(One of the great things about the Psalms is that they illustrate or exemplify almost all of those images of God and of ourselves I’ve just mentioned. Think just of this one image: “Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me,” says the poet of Psalm 131:2. Like a weaned child, not hungry for the breast, but content simply to sit with the mother. A beautiful prayer of contentment, of deep communion, in the Lord.)
As with the two men in Jesus’ parable, our praying is an index of our Christianity. I don’t mean here Christianity in general, as described or prescribed in books. I mean my Christianity and your Christianity, yours and mine individually: how well we have appropriated the Gospel, how deeply it affects our lives, what resonance it has in our whole being. Prayer is one of the ways in which we can test how real our Christianity is. One of my mentors, Bernard Lonergan, was a great philosopher and theologian. When he celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a Jesuit, he said he was most grateful to the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, for one thing: that they had taught him to pray. That’s what Jesus is doing for us today.